Raise your hand if you’re freaked out about eating fish. You’re not the only one. Picking sustainable seafood—as in fish that’s not caught faster than it can breed, with low by-catch (marine animals caught unintentionally in commercial nets) and little harm to habitats—can cause a sea of confusion. Add to the mix mercury, pollutants and bisphenol A (BPA) in canned varieties, and no wonder your head is spinning. Well, time to stop fretting and start eating. Seafood doesn’t have to be a catch-22. The type of fish you eat can have a positive effect on the environment, not to mention your health and your palate. Here are eight reasons to start celebrating the lean, mean and nutrient-packed protein.
1. Farmed bottom feeders are the bomb
Aquaculture gets a bad rap. Blame farmed salmon, which is often treated with antibiotics and pesticides to control parasites, and can contain up to 10 times more polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than wild salmon. Yet U.S.-farmed mussels, oysters and clams get a big eco-check mark. “I argue that it’s our patriotic duty to eat as many farmed oysters, mussels and clams as we can,” says chef Barton Seaver, author of For Cod and Country (Sterling Epicure). These filter feeders help clean up the water and spawn to rebuild wild populations. To eat, simply steam clams with herbs, toss mussels into a red sauce or eat oysters raw right out of the half shell. Bonus: They’re packed with protein, zinc, iron, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. Other farmed goodies: U.S. catfish, rainbow trout, barramundi and Kona Kampachi, a mercury-free yellowtail with hefty levels of omega-3s.
2. Fish is the last wild food
Fresh-out-of-the-water fish come with no preservatives, additives or antibiotics. “Fish is one of the healthiest proteins on the planet,” says Kate Geagan, M.S., R.D., author of Go Green, Get Lean (Rodale). It’s rich in heart-healthy omega-3s and bone-building vitamin D, two nutrients most Americans are lacking, and without the arteryclogging saturated fat. So what’s the hitch? Some fish may contain high levels of toxic mercury or PCBs. “The risks of not eating seafood vastly exceed the risks of eating seafood,” adds Geagan, who lists a decreased risk of heart disease and dementia as benefits. To cut your exposure to contaminants, think small. In general, the bigger the fish, the more toxins it contains. Skip mercury heavyweights like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tile fish (a shallow-water fish, also known as blanquillo); eat low on the food chain (think sardines and mackerel); and switch it up at the seafood counter.
3. Traditional grocery stores are turning into sustainability superheroes
Supermarkets are no longer taking a back seat to sustainability. Greenpeace ranks grocery stores annually, and the scores have steadily increased. This year, Safeway took the top spot, followed by Target and Wegman’s (tied for second), and Whole Foods. The latter pledged to eliminate all red-list fish, the worst in terms of sustainability, by Earth Day 2013. As a concerned (and ecoconscious) consumer, do your part by letting your local seafood merchant know that you care, and shop at stores and restaurants that promote sustainable options. Even better, go in armed with a pocket guide (Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute have great ones) and use it to question the person behind the seafood counter. Lastly, look for products with the blue eco-label of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a surefire stamp of sustainability.